Since Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s recent death, a variety of voices have been calling him everything from a cultural icon and innovator to, according to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “wicked,” a “chauvinist” and “a pornographer.”
“Hef the vanquisher of puritanism, Hef the political progressive, Hef the great businessman and all the rest,” writes Douthat. “There are even conservative appreciations, arguing that for all his faults Hef was an entrepreneur who appreciated the finer things in life and celebrated la difference.”
Douthat then goes on to tear old Hef’s legacy apart, and with good reason.
For all his peccadilloes, Hefner’s success says more about America than it does about anything else. For good or ill, a fellow like Hefner could only reinvent himself in a free country like ours.
As it goes, Hef was something of a loser when he was a teen. A kid of average looks, he was frustrated that girls ignored him. He decided to transform himself. He nicknamed himself – “Hef” – which is something a normal man would never do. And he concocted a fantasy life in which he would be rich, worldly and the life of every party.
In 1953, Hef published the first issue of Playboy. It featured Marilyn Monroe and flew off the newsstands. Hef said America was repressed and his mission, which involved exploiting the male sex drive to make dough, was to set us free.
Over the next six decades, we really were set free, too. Despite the fact that marriage rates are way down, divorce rates are high, and illegitimacy and single-parent households have soared, old Hef believed to the end that we Americans are still repressed.
I don’t want to give the fellow’s legacy too much credit for these trends. They would surely have happened had he and Playboy never existed.
But his legacy brings us back to the concept of freedom.
In America, any man is free to be a fool. Any man is free to shun spirituality and inner beauty to pursue ego, dough and scantily-clad young women.
But our freedoms also allow a man to choose to live a virtuous life, as my father has. He married young and worked long and hard for his family. My father knows what it is like to love one woman, through good and bad, for nearly six decades – an experience Hef never knew.
My father, 84, is surrounded by six children, 17 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. The home he and my mother created is a place of great happiness on Sundays and holidays – and anytime any of us want to stop by.
My father gave us something old Hef failed to give his children: a clear example of how to pursue a virtuous life.
Whereas Hef became a caricature of himself as an old man – wearing silk pajamas all day long and using his worldly wealth to keep a torrent of young women nearby – my father has earned the love and respect of his family, friends and neighbors.
Whereas my father is getting by on a modest retirement income, he has one thing Hef never could attain: real wealth.
Old Hef was able to create a new life in America and enjoy the trappings of worldly wealth for 91 years. Good for him.
I wish the old fellow well as he settles up with his maker, as we all must in time.
I hope for his sake that our maker goes easier on him than Douthat did.
Tom Purcell, author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood” and “Wicked Is the Whiskey,” a Sean McClanahan mystery novel, both available at Amazon.com, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. For info on using this column in your publication or website, contact Sales@cagle.com or call (805) 969-2829. Send comments to Tom at Tom@TomPurcell.com.